Joe Ely

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The first time I saw Joe Ely was around 1986, at the Austin Opry House. I remember saying to the person with me, “Well, that’s what Rock and Roll looks like.” It was raw like good church, a show. He was all over the stage. The songs were a crazy mash up of West Texas swing, Mexican rhythms, and flat-out rave. Loud guitars, pedal steel, drums and accordions.

A few years later, at a party at his house near Austin, I sat around a fire and listened to him, and others, sing. His version that night of “Because Of The Wind” stuck in my mind because of his voice — low, soft, full of horizon.

In 1989 I opened for him on a tour of the Netherlands, UK and Ireland. Every night was electric. We would stand backstage and watch Joe give it all. It was something like the power I’d witnessed as a kid hanging out near the chutes at rodeos around Texas.

Joe is that mix of melancholy distance and barely controlled lightning. He has more stories than most libraries (whether they’re all true or not is completely irrelevant), and he’s a master at the telling. His music is equal parts Buddy Holly, Roy Orbison, Woody Guthrie and Mexican folk songs. To me, he’s an American treasure.

I ran into him the other night at a party and he told me a great story that had to do with being stuck in a New York City basement during Hurricane Gloria with Keith Richards and Ron Wood.

You should’ve been there.

Wake Up, Show Up

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The songwriter Billy Kirsch and I were talking about our work a couple of months ago. What we came to was that in order to do our jobs well, to really be in the song we’re writing, recording or performing, we have to be present, alive, and paying attention.

For artists, job #1 is to wake up. In order to write a song, I first have to see the world. Only then do I have something to pull from, something to say. It’s not so different from other jobs. Whatever you do, being awake and bringing your whole self to the task is the route to your best work.

When I sit down to write a song, I pull inspiration from anywhere I can find it. Something seen while traveling, bits of conversation overheard in a coffee shop, the latest article or book I’ve read, a movie, anything, it’s all fair game. Basically, I throw a lasso around my life and use it in the song.

I bring myself to work.

I used to put up a wall between my work and my family. I kept the guitars in the studio, rarely played music in the house. I was afraid that I would overwhelm those around me, take all the oxygen out of the room. At some point, I did a U-turn, and started hanging guitars on the walls, kept one in every room in the house, put a piano in the kitchen. I let my kids see me working on songs, played guitar while they got ready for school in the morning. The result was that they began to know me, and I saw them differently as well. They would come sit in the living room while I played piano and do their homework. When I showed up, it opened doors for my family to do the same.

I brought myself home.

At work, at home, wherever you are, whatever you’re doing, bring your whole self.

Show up.